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Transcript for Episode 9.51

Writing Excuses 9.51: Q & A At the Retreat


Q and A:
Q: In the trend of moral ambiguity [in fantasy], is there still a place for a story with a villian who is unquestionably evil and with a moral absolute there?
A: Yes. “Anything done well will be captivating.”
Q: If you have a chance to publish a first book and it isn’t representative of what you actually want to be writing, should you publish it?
A: Yes. If you are being paid, and depending on the contract.
Q: Is it possible to write an epic fantasy novel with only one POV?
A: Yes. You have to build it differently than a multiple POV book.
Q: Of all of the myriad talents of the literary agents you work with, what was the one thing that made you decide to stick with them?
A: She likes my work. Looks at long-term arc of my career. Critiques, makes money for me, and treated me like a superstar from day one.
Q: When you have limited time and are using it to research and outline, how do you avoid letting your writing skills atrophy?
A: Game review site. Short pieces. Learning to gear up when transitioning.
Q: What are some issues and concerns to be aware of when a short story writer begins writing a novel?
A: The amount of description — put in the details and fill out the picture more. Also, the number of characters and plot arcs.
Q: How do you decide whether to scrap a character or adjust/tweak them?
A: Look at the character. Are they interesting, are you excited to be writing them, will writing it make you stretch?
Q: When you build a story, do you find it easier to put the foreshadowing elements in as plot points, or back on the first editing pass?
A: Both.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 51.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q & A At the Writing Retreat.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we want to go eat.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I’m keeping us from dinner by talking long-winded.
[Brandon] No, it’ll still only be 15 minutes. It’ll just be them having to listen to… Anyway, questions! First question is from [Gana].

[X] So in the trend of moral ambiguity, is there still a place for a story with a villain who is unquestionably evil and with a moral absolute there?
[Brandon] Wow, that’s a good question. What he’s bringing up is that particularly in fantasy recently, the trend has been for shades of gray, kind of kicked by George RR Martin in coming to prominence, I would say. I believe that there is. I believe anything done well will be captivating. Harry Potter had an unquestionably evil villain who was really evil and interestingly evil and it worked.
[Mary] I can think of someone in real life that I would think of as unquestionably evil, without naming any names. So I have no problems believing in any fictional…
[Dan] I’m right here, Mary.
[Howard] I… In playing the Horror Lands 2 game…
[Brandon] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] Handsome Jack.
[Brandon] So evil.
[Howard] He thinks… He talks about himself like he’s the hero of the story, but there’s no doubt that it’s…
[Brandon] There’s no doubt that he really kind of knows how evil he is.
[Dan] well, I would point as well to… Something that is much more ambiguous than those, like Abercrombie’s First Law series in which the heroes are all various shades of dark gray, but the bad guys are pretty much just as evil as possible.
[Brandon] So, yes.
[Howard] [garbled – evil stays?]
[Brandon] Next question.

[X] Okay. If you have a chance to publish a first book and it isn’t representative of what you actually want to be writing, should you publish it?
[Mary] Well, you’ve written it and… Are they offering you money?
[X] Yes.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Yes. I would still publish it. The worst-case scenario of that is you publish your second book under a different name. If someone is paying you, then yes. I do want to add a little caveat on this one, though. I’m glad I didn’t publish my early books. But those who did publish their early books and they took off, I can think of several of them that are millionaires, like super big millionaires, and I don’t think they mind too much. So the worst-case is that you have to publish under a new name. You probably won’t have to do that. If someone wants to publish your book and give you money, yes should probably be the default, depending on the contract.
[Howard] I would say yes. Okay. Qualify it just a little bit. You wrote this because it was something you wanted to write, but it’s not what you want to be known for. But maybe what you want to be known for is I can write more than one thing. Oh, look, I got a paycheck for this. Now I’m going to write something different and get a paycheck for that.
[Mary] Yeah. Tad Williams has a really good career writing a different type of genre every single novel.

[X] Is it possible to write an epic fantasy novel with only one POV?
[Brandon] It’s called Name of the Wind.
[Mary] Yes.
[Howard] It is hearty stew for the…
[Mary] Yes, it is. But you’ll note that you still wind up with a giant cast. So that the epicness of it… You could make the argument that there are two POV’s.
[Brandon] Yes, you could. There are a couple of POV’s, really, with the frame story. But Assassin’s Apprentice, which we mentioned last week, is epic fantasy. The fate of the world is at stake, large cast of characters, various interesting magics, high fantasy, and it is one POV through nine books.
[Dan] The thing is that you’re building it differently. You can’t do it the same way as a multiple POV book, but you can do it.
[Brandon] You’re going to have to have a really engaging voice for that character would be my suggestion to you on that one. That’s going to make it sink or swim.

[X] Of all of the myriad talents of the literary agents you work with, what was the one thing that made you decide to stick with them?
[Mary] Oo, that’s a good question.
[Dan] She really likes my work.
[Dan] I mean, that sounds silly, but that is the core of our relationship. That I know that she is as invested in my career as I am. So as important as it is that she has great international contacts and that she knows how the taxes work and all these other really good things that she does, she is as invested in my career as I am because she loves my work.
[Mary] Yeah. That was for me with Jenn as well, in that she was looking at the long-term arc of my career rather than just this book.
[Brandon] Couple of things about Joshua that really early on made me say yes I want to be with this person. First off, he gave a critique of my novel that Tor was offering to buy where he identified the major structural flaw with the book that when I changed improved the book dramatically. Better… He did a better job on that than most editors I’ve worked with. Secondly, he makes money for me. Meaning he costs… Joshua costs a lot. He costs 15% of what I make and we’re doing pretty well. So he makes me more than he costs me. That’s a really good sign. I still feel that he makes me more than he costs me. Even if you only look at the foreign sales, which I would not really be able to accomplish on my own, that recoups what he has cost me and then some by taking 15% of my US. So there is that. The last thing that really made me stuck with Joshua was when I had my first book and really was a nobody… I mean, my first offer was for 5000 bucks on my first book, which is run-of-the-mill, early advance, but it is… I mean, that means he’s making what, $700 off of all that work that he did, which is way less than an attorney would get for the same amount of time. He gave me… Like he didn’t just give me the time of day. We had weekly phone calls. I felt like I was being treated like a superstar from day one with Joshua.

[X] I was wondering, when you’re in the middle of outlining or researching for a novel or series, how do you… And you have limited time, how do you make sure that your writing skills don’t atrophy? Meaning that you only have a certain amount of time in the day, and you’re using it to research and outline. Do you keep a blog, do you just do writing exercises?
[Brandon] This is a good question that I think is more applicable when you have to balance a regular job. So I really want to hear what Dan says about this one, because…
[Dan] Well. You mentioned blogs. I, for years and years and years, ran a game review website. Did weekly editorials on that, I did game reviews, I did strategy articles. I was writing constantly, even though not as much of it was prose. Today I don’t do as much of that. In fact, I barely ever update my blog. When I have started finding myself doing now is… That was a really awkward sentence, wasn’t it?
[Mary] Professional writer.
[Dan] Is working on short fiction. While I am researching the new book that I’m doing or the new multi-book series that I am doing, I don’t want the writing to slack off, so I’m going to write a short piece about whatever.
[Mary] I’m going to give a slightly different answer, which is that I don’t mind not writing for a while, but what I look at is ways to gear up again into writing mode when I am transitioning from novels or outlining or puppet building back into that. One of the things that I do is that I will go on long walks or some other physical activity in which I plan out the scene and think about it in my head. Then I will go ahead and write it. I will also give myself time to free write, where I’m not worrying about plot but just like, “Oh, yeah. Let me actually remember how to put… String words together in a sentence.” So those are some things that I will do when I’m doing a transition period.
[Brandon] See, I’ve never worried about this because if I take time off to outline or plot, it’s never more than a couple of months. Even when I was a new writer, I was working the graveyard shift, I was working on my writing 5 to 6 hours a day. So if you’re working that much on your story, I mean the… I could see writing skills atrophying if it’s like you’re going to have to take two years doing this because you can only write a half hour a day. Which is why I pointed to Dan. But it’s never even something I’ve even considered.
[Dan] Well, I should point out, I’m not concerned that my writing skills are going to disappear, so much as that if I don’t write, I know I’m going to get grumpy.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s what happens to me, too. Howard?
[Howard] Oh, you guys are fine.

[X] What are some issues and concerns to be aware of when a short story writer begins writing a novel?
[Mary] Hah. That could be an entire podcast.
[Brandon] Yes it could.
[Mary] I can do…
[Brandon] Do a quick answer, and then we’ll think about doing a full podcast on it.
[Mary] So when you transition from short to long form, the things that I find are different are the amount of description, and one of the things we were also talking about in the previous podcast, the enfranchised versus disenfranchised reader. A novel reader and a short story reader come in with different expectations about the amount of exposition they’re going to get. This is one of the big areas that I see people failing to transition when they’re going from short to long form. Short story readers are used to having to fill in the gaps because there is not enough space. Novel readers are used to there being enough space for everything, so they assume that if the author does not put it in, that it has been forgotten and missed and it’s an accident. So you actually end up having to put more exposition in, more… That you have to make sure more of the details and fill out the picture more. I shouldn’t say exposition, that you have to fill out the picture more. Then there’s also the number of characters and plot arcs that you’re looking at. A lot of times, short stories, you really only have space to do one or two plot arcs. Novels, depending on the genre that you’re going into, they’re expecting to see multiples. So sometimes it can be too simple.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think that’s a great answer. If we cover this more, I’d like to have Eric James Stone on the podcast, because he recently sold a book to Baen. That book was his… He was primarily a short story writer, and he had all of these issues. Every one of them you just mentioned, and he had to work through them in creating his novel.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s do our book of the week. Sara Glassman is going to pitch a book to us.
[Sara] I would like to recommend Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It is incredibly red by David Weyman on Audible. Joe Spork is a hapless London clockmaker who happens to be the son of a London-style gangster. His life is turned upside down when he meets the octogenarian superspy Edie Bannister.
[Sara] Who releases a 1950s style doomsday device.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] I want to read that book now.
[Brandon] Your pitch is way better than our pitches, even on our own books.
[Dan] She’s a bookseller, professionally.
[Brandon] Okay. Okay. See, we decided for this Q and A, if we do future of these, we wanted to have one of the students pitch a book, because we have done it a lot, and you just showed us up.
[Howard] We’re going to have Sara pitch all of the books.
[Brandon] How can they get this book?
[Howard] Start a 30-day free trial membership with Audible and get… I have now… All I remember is Edie Bannister.
[Brandon] Angelmaker.
[Howard] Angelmaker free.
[Brandon] Great. That was a wonderful pitch. I want to go listen to that book now.
[Mary] Yeah, me too.

[Brandon] All right. So, next question.
[X] All right. This is kind of targeted at Brandon, but I’d like to hear everyone’s answer if possible. Brandon, at times you mentioned free writing your characters that you need to scrap then, and at other times you talk about adjusting and tweaking them. If you have tips on when you decide which way is the way to go.
[Brandon] Yeah. So what he is referencing is that I discovery write my characters. More and more these days, the way that I come up with characters who are engaging and interesting and don’t let the plot just kind of take over as much as I worry it can when I outline as much as I do. Because it is the thing I discovery write, it is the hardest thing for me to talk about and to give tips on because it’s very instinctive. I look at what this character is doing. I say, “Am I interested? Am I excited to write more about this character? Can I see myself writing a variety of different scenes with this character that are all engaging and interesting? Does this character… Writing this viewpoint challenge me?” I often look at that these days. Does it force me to stretch in my knowledge, in my ability to write somebody very different from myself? Does it give me lots of great moments where in this scene I say, “That is that character. That line encapsulates that character.” If I’m getting some of those moments, but not enough, that’s a revision, that’s a tweak. I say, “Okay. I kind of have something here. There’s something exciting about this, and I’m getting it, but they’re not coming together yet.” If I’m not getting enough of them, if I’m not excited about the character, often it’s because the character feels too much like someone I’ve done before or someone I’ve read before. That’s when I toss the character and start over.
[Howard] I’ve got a folder full of… The folder is called off track, and it is full of Schlock Mercenary scripts that I was writing as the next point in the story. Usually what is happening in those is somebody else has walked on screen, and I find myself exploring that character’s voice. By the end of the script, I just cannot make that character work with this script, but I don’t want to throw it away. So I chuck it in a folder and write something else. I’ve ducked back into that folder and found that in many cases what’s in there is backstory for completely different characters who develop those voices. But… Yeah, it’s the same sort of thing. I’m discovery writing my way into somebody’s voice, and if I don’t like it, I allow myself to not use it, but I still keep it, because throwing things away is bad.
[Dan] If you are putting together a character, you’re designing your characters for your story, and you realize that one is not working, you can look at it and just ask yourself is it more work to fix this or is it easier to tear it down and start over? Which one is going to be easier for you to do?
[Mary] Yeah, I…
[Brandon] You’re exposing our inherent laziness, Dan.
[Mary] I think of it in terms of my theater background again, which is that I think of it in terms of recasting the character. Sometimes I’ll have… I’ll be partway in, or in the case of a more recent thing, I have the entire book finished, and realize that the character… That I essentially have the wrong actor playing the character. All of the plot spots are correct, but the inner life of the character is completely wrong. So I will do a rewrite, where I will replace the character with different motivation. For me, it is thinking about the motivation of the character, why… What it is they want and also what their background is. Because their background and their history informs how they react to things. A lot of times, those are the places that I have gone wrong, because the reactions do not jibe with what I need to be happening, so I give them a different backstory.
[Brandon] All right. We’re going to let it go one more question, because you’ve been waiting so patiently.

[X] When you build a story, do you find it easier to put the foreshadowing elements in as plot points, or back on the first editing pass?
[Dan] Both.
[Brandon] I’d say I do about half-and-half.
[Mary] Yes. Both.
[Dan] Part of that, part of the reason that that works for me is because of how I outline things. So I know that I’m building towards these few specific moments. So as I’m writing, an opportunity will arise to go, “Oh, this is great.” I can’t give you the example that just popped into my head because it’s for the book that’s not published yet. Sorry. But then about the other half of the time, you get to the end and you realize, “Oh, there’s not enough yet, I need to go back and add more.”
[Mary] Yeah. Sometimes things that look like foreshadowing are really us looking back at the beginning and going, “What can I use that I’ve already planted?”
[Howard] I… The running gag is a very common sort of structure. Far better than the running gag is the joke at the end of the story that absolutely wouldn’t have worked if you hadn’t told three or four jokes that lead up to it. Same exact principle as foreshadowing. About half the time, I know what the final joke is, and I will write the jokes that lead up to it. The other half of the time, we are… Sorry. I am writing jokes and I have no idea what the last joke is…
[Mary] Or what you’re going to say.
[Howard] Well, after I’ve told the first three… There’s hand signals flying across the room that our listeners have no idea are flying across the room. I will have told three or four jokes and then the last one comes to me and I realize, “Oh.” Well, maybe my subconscious was foreshadowing that one. That’s where I get to end up.

[Brandon] All right. I want to ask a student to give us a writing prompt.
[Mary] And you didn’t warn them.
[Dan] Oh, burn.
[Brandon] I know I didn’t. Has anybody got a writing prompt for us?
[X] The favorite one I have is, “Everywhere Edward looked, everything was covered with ketchup.”
[Brandon] That’s your first line.
[Dan] Nice.
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses, now go write.